Air tanker crashes fighting Kruger Rock Fire, killing pilot during historic night-vision flight

Courtesy of Eric Harrington
A herd of elk run away as fire burns and plumes of smoke rise near Estes Park on November 16, 2021. The fire has grown to over 133 acres and has forced evacuation orders.

Updated 6:41 a.m.

A pilot died Tuesday night after his single-engine air tanker crashed while responding to the Kruger Rock Fire. 

First responders located the crash site and pilot around 10 p.m., several miles south of Estes Park. According to the Larimer County’s Sheriff’s Office, the plane went missing shortly after taking off around 6:30 p.m. 

“All agencies on this fire are devastated by the loss of a dedicated and brave pilot and his plane,” said Justin Smith, the county’s sheriff, in a Facebook post.

The sheriff’s office has not determined how the plane crashed. Federal investigators will assist local efforts to determine a cause, Smith said. 

The plane was a single-engine air tanker carrying night-vision technology. Its flight was expected to make history as the first time a fixed wing aircraft was used to fight a fire using night-vision.

Investigators say the Kruger Rock wildfire ignited Tuesday morning after high winds blew a tree onto a nearby powerline. More than 150 personnel responded.

By early Wednesday morning, the blaze sat at roughly 133 acres in size. High winds have made containing the fire a challenge, Smith said. 

Mandatory evacuation orders remain in place for residents in the Hermit Park, Meadowdale, and Panorama Peak areas, including the Big Elk Meadows and Pinewood Springs neighborhoods west of Highway 36. 

Residents and businesses in the Little Valley area are also under a mandatory evacuation order. 

This is a developing story and will be updated.